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Hearth & Market: MDM grad Wendy Uhlman’s Kickstarter concept

Hearth & Market is a new venture from Live Station Farm in Southwest Michigan, a group of long time Chicago residents that includes artists, designers, and chefs continually searching for the best, most nutrient rich, organic food at an affordable price. Although she pursued sustainable farming for many years, IIT Institute of Design graduate Wendy Uhlman (MDM 2015) developed the idea of a mobile market while in an entrepreneurship class last year. She focused on how to impact large-scale systematic change within our food system. In the final week of her Kickstarter campaign, Wendy described her new endeavor.

Tell us about Hearth & Market. What sparked the original inspiration and what experiences did you pull from to develop and finesse the concept?

We wanted to get out of the city sometimes and go into the woods to slow down and enjoy nature. We built a modular, off-grid cabin for an exhibition to help spread the word about reused building material and new alternative technologies and started looking for a place to put that cabin.

After searching for a few years, we found Michigan to be a place of beauty and environmental cleanliness. After 3 years of developing that property, we wanted to grow our own food, but not tear down our old growth trees to get the sunshine needed. We looked for farmland close by and found a dormant 5 acre property that has taken a few years to bring back to life through soil amendments and prairie restoration. It is now a working farm where we apply permaculture techniques, social design principles centered around utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.

Last year we challenged ourselves with growing as much food as possible, but we struggled with how to bring our produce and products to people. What the traditional system of food dissemination lacks is direct contact with people. The lack of affordable organic produce and food available in Chicago combined with the realization after exploring our regional farms, healthy and low priced organic food is not that far away brought us to create Hearth & Market. We developed a ‘farmers market’ model integrating the ability to go beyond the limits of a specific day and time.

Hearth & Market is a new way to bring healthy, organic and local produce and products to people in cities anytime, anywhere. A food truck and mobile farmers market, several levels of preparation are present to allow for personal preference, ranging from individual organic produce for sale, meal boxes with recipes and ingredients, and healthy cooked meals ready to eat. The goal of the endeavor today is to start small by connecting local farmers, organizations, restaurants, chefs, and markets with people to make good food more accessible within their everyday lives. A future vision includes partnerships to bring this vessel to people more places, at a variety of times and supplied with diverse vendors that connect the community. They will also offer workshops, seed and plant supplies and the heritage products they make and use on the food truck as an educational support and encouragement of dialog around the future of food and farming.

In order to make this new farming model sustainable, you must be delivering something not otherwise offered by food trucks, farm-to-table restaurants, CSA’s, and other services with similar objectives. What are some of the gaps in the current farm fresh food market?

The unique prospect with Hearth & Market is that it brings healthy food to people on multiple levels — from produce and products, to pre-packaged curated meals with ingredients and recipes, to a menu of ready-made food. It also brings the farmer together with chef to make the best-sourced and best-tasting meal possible. Not having the middle man and overhead of the distributor, restaurant, or store allows people to get this food at a lower price and know who and where it came from. They will know the story of the farm, farmer, and chef, as well as have the opportunity to not only eat the food from this collaboration, but also can learn how to do it themselves through workshops and events.

Describe your personal story — from working on the corporate side of the food industry to obtaining and MDM at IIT Institute of Design to this new initiative.

I began as an industrial designer focusing on sustainability design and how I could help people. For awhile I was able to work in this realm and intern with organizations that supported social design and innovation for social good. The challenge to this work is that it’s hard to find a good paying job that’s meaningful. I decided to work in the corporate world knowing that it would likely be a challenge, but that I would ‘know the beast’ enough to make change there. I fell into design research within the packaging design industry and consequently worked with many large food companies over the years. It’s not to say that there aren’t good people working at these places and I don’t want to make it sound as if they are all evil, but in general I found that the intentions of these large monopolies was simply profit. They are so rushed and challenged with quarterly and yearly earnings, that they forget about the big picture effects on human and environment health. Much is changing in the world of food today due to public scrutiny and the necessity to make true health a priority, but I felt my role as a designer to be limited and only an afterthought.

The reason I went to IIT Institute of Design, was to gain knowledge and experience in bigger picture, systematic innovation, as well as to learn how to navigate change for these important issues of our time. Our endeavor with Hearth & Market is primarily a way to bring new ideas and options to people in a simpler, more straightforward way that continues to impact their lives in positive manner. Of course we are still concerned with profit, but only to be sustainable and continue the good work. It is amazing now as well to bring together all the skills I learned at ID and in the corporate world to make a small business of my own and connect with people directly to make them happy and healthy.